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Courts in Australia


Sunday, 9 May 2010, Rockhampton

completed on Thursday, 13 May 2010 in the Tilt-train from Rockhampton to Brisbane

Yesterday evening I arrived in Rockhampton Queensland, where I will attend the Murri court sitting day on Wednesday in the Magistrates’ court here. It feels great to be in a tropical area again. I love the nurturing warm energy of the atmosphere. My program has been overcrowded. Now I have two days to write and prepare. I have a hotel room with open door to the quiet garden with swimming pool. I don’t use the airco. The restaurant here is good and has a nice terrace. I took a grilled baramundi, fish of the day. I have a lot to do here: preparing my presentation held on the Non-Adversarial Justice conference last week for publication on the website of the Australasian Institute for Judicial Administration, the organization that organized the conference. Further I need to write updates for my blog: experiences in the Koori court in Shepparton and the conference in Melbourne. I work in my room, table before the open door to the garden. Every time when I look up from my computer I see the strong green grass, inviting me to do pentjak silat exercises in the morning and the evening.

On Thursday 29 April I took a flight to Melbourne. At the airport I rented a car and drove to Shepparton, about 200 km north from Melbourne. I stayed in a friendly motel there in the city centre. Judges and Magistrates are traveling officers here. Their bases are in the capital and they travel with their staff to remote areas in order to do their sentencing work throughout the country. I think that this system makes judicial officers more flexible. They experience more explicitly cultural differences in different areas. Much more than in The Netherlands judicial officers will be challenged to decision making in a way that appears to be appropriate and effective in the specific area. Especially for indigenous sentencing this will be the case as there are about 250 different Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia, each having a different language. For this reasons many different forms of indigenous sentencing are developed.

The Koori Court in Shepparton is much more "organized" than the Nunga Court in Pt Adelaide. The approach is much more formal. Magistrate Gerard Bryant is a well-organized man. I meet the Elders Aunty Kelly and Uncle Des Morgan and Koori Court Officer Maxwell Atkinson. There is a Court social worker working in the Magistrate’s Court who can deliberately be consulted by people who came in contact with the Court. Before the court sitting Magistrate Bryant took half an hour to discuss the matters with the Elders, and with the Court Social Worker.

Magistrate Bryant started every case with an expression of respect for the traditional owners of the land, calling the names of the people as well. It is even more, longer than I write here. At first I perceived this ritual as a bit strange. I wondered if this would be not more than a formality. I dislike people saying things that they do not mean and I have a bit an allergic reaction to such things. I had heard this ritual as well in Port Adelaide when the Lord Mayor started his speech at Peggy Hora’s reception. Since then I learned more about this ritual. The Non-Adversarial Justice conference in Melbourne was opened with a beautiful Aboriginal ritual, thoroughly performed by an Aboriginal woman. The president of the AIJA, when opening the conference asked attention for her opening ritual. After doing that and being thanked for that she left the conference. Then the conference program started. Many presenters started their presentation with this ritual as well. Now I feel quite different about this. I feel that it has a very deep meaning. It honors the people whose land in fact has been stolen by the Western immigrants, whose children are taken away from them for over 100 years. The ritual respects as well the way the Aboriginal people respect the Earth in so much deeper sense than we, Western people do that. I realize that this ritual helps healing deep wounds that the Western culture has brought to the Aboriginal culture, every time that it is expressed. On the conference I heard that similar rituals are common in New Zealand and Canada as well. I have spoken presenters who said to love this ritual and to begin all of their speeches with it. It makes them kind of happy to begin their speech with it.

Further about the Koori Court: The Courtroom is especially for Koori Court sittings. The walls are all decorated with Aboriginal art work. In the left backside corner stand three flags, the Australian flag in front, behind first the Aboriginal flag and then the Torres Street Islander flag. The Court session is held around an oval table. Everyone sits on the same level. Behind the table at the long side the Magistrate and two Elders are sitting, at the small ends a Corrections officer and a Koori Court officer were sitting. Opposite of the Magistrate and the Elders sat the offender, the defense lawyer, and the police prosecutor. In the Courtroom are present as well representatives of healthcare services, the Court social worker and family and friends of the offender if the defender brings them. The victim is not present or represented in the Koori Court system.

In fact in all cases of this Koori Court sitting alcohol and substance abuse was at stake at the offender. The cases can take about one hour. Some do less. Only those cases are brought for the Koori Court in which the offence can lead to incarceration. The Koori Court is there to try to prevent incarceration through probation and intensive corrections orders. If the Court order is breached incarceration will follow. I start to understand a bit about how the system works in this country. However I do not fully understand the system yet.

After having seen a number of the cases I discover Magistrate Bryant’s policy. He brings the case up, then, in a subtle way he transfers the interaction to the Elders who speak with the offender. Then, when the Elders have reached what they can with the offender, he takes over the case and makes his decision. It is impressing to see and experience what happens in the interaction between the Elders and the offender. They are supportive and hold the offender responsible at the same time. More than once the interaction brought the offender to tears. The approach of the Elders is full of – I cannot express better – Wisdom and Love. The power of the Elders is to bring the offender back on the right path through their Wisdom and deep Loving approach. They open the heart of the offender. This approach gets a follow up in the community of the offender through detox and trainings programs, supported by social workers, community work, etc. Many of the cases will be suspended so that the offender can prevent custody. The laws in Victoria prescribe a custody sentence in the second case of drink driving. The Magistrate’s obligation to sentence custody opens opportunities to suspend the case and put the offender this way under Under pressure to comply with intensive correction orders, detox, training, etc. Within the communities there are more and more initiatives to support those people. Magistrate Bryant tells me that the Koori Court leads to a substantial decrease of recidivism.

Uncle Des Morgan brought a young single mother with two kids to tears through asking her on a good moment in a very sympathetic way: "What are you doing with your life? You need to be there for your kids. And you risk getting incarcerated. You are such a nice woman. Why? What are you doing?" And Aunty Kelly added on a right moment: " Come Mary (I took another name for her), change your life. Do what is good for you, and for your children." Then a smile appeared on Mary’s face. She felt seen and respected as a human being. This was healing her. Then the Magistrate took it over. He warns her: "This is your last chance you get from me, Mary. You have to comply with a detox and rehabilitation program. I suspend the case for 4 weeks in order to see how you are going." He applies the Problem Solving Court approach in this case. This implies that he will monitor her performance in the detox- and training program.

An offender, a man with mental health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, and denial of his problems – I call him John – behaving completely as a victim, through the approach of the Elders become communicative. I saw him coming to life again. When that happened appointments could be made for treatment for alcohol and psychological dysfunction. John had moved to Melbourne. The Court social worker and the Corrections officer, both present at the Court session, coordinate how the treatment will be effected. The case is suspended for 6 weeks. What the Elders are doing is pure empowerment. It is respectful. They communicate to the soul, to the heart. They communicate on a so much deeper level of human being then we are accustomed to do, the level of our brain. The offenders respect and accept the person fully as they are, and from there support them to start again, saying: "You are the only one who can do it. We can’t do it for you. You can have support, but you have to do it." In some cases the Elders spoke about apology with the offender as well.

A woman, 29 years old, with an alcohol problem, having 7 children comes in the Koori court for 6 offences: drink driving, traffic in a violent relationship is in transitional housing for a substantial time already. Her 7 children stay with her wherever she is. She has been in jail already for a while. Uncle Des Morgan started to speak to her. I saw her looking down, deeper and deeper, while her spoke on. Then she burst into tears. He spoke about her children, and about "all of us Aborigines". Then she came back in contact again. A few minutes uncle and she had a deep intimate conversation about her life, and how she could live it. He opened a door in her to go to health services for alcohol treatment and anger management. The judge suspended the case, warning her that after any other wrongdoing she would be put in custody. 

Seven cases were done during this day. Halfway we had lunch together, Magistrate George Bryant, the Elders, and the Koori Court coordinator. It was great having lunch together after the intense sitting, and to hear about how the Magistrate, and the Elders experience the Koori Court. Magistrate Bryant is very positive, especially about the substantial reduction of recidivism. This is the main benefit of the system for him. For the Elders it is an important system that helps bridging the intercultural gap. And the system enables them to help members of their people in a very concrete and effective way. I gave them my conflict model. I see that the Aboriginal people immediately understand it. In fact I use the model often a bit as my business card. 

The next days I drove back to Melbourne through the old goldmine district. I had some quiet and nice days until I arrived in Melbourne on Sunday-evening 2 May. From that moment I needed to complete my presentation, to be held on 5 May.


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